Week 14 storylines: What to watch for in college football's biggest matchups

Which Big Ten team will earn a playoff berth? Can Clemson handle UNC in the ACC title game? Sizing up the top storylines to watch in Week 14.
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After thirteen crazy weeks, one Saturday is all that stands between us and bowl season, including the College Football Playoff. Week 14 doubles as championship Saturday, when four of the Power 5 conferences will hold their conference title games, as will the American, this year’s strongest Group of Five conference. All five league championship games carry serious implications. The results of the four Power 5 games will determine which three teams join Big 12-winner Oklahoma in the playoff, while the AAC title game will decide who earns the Group of Five’s New Year’s Six bowl bid.

There are clear favorites in the SEC, Pac-12 and ACC championship games, but you can never rule out chaos. Ohio State—the only team not playing on Saturday that remains a playoff contender—will be rooting for just that, while Stanford and the Big Ten title game loser will also be hoping for upsets in the other two Power 5 games. Here are five storylines to watch in Week 14:

1. Big Ten title game serves as playoff quarterfinal

Plenty remains unsettled playoff-wise pending the outcomes of the other conference championship games, but it’s simple for Iowa and Michigan State: win and you’re in. With the teams sitting at No. 4 and No. 5, respectively, in this week’s playoff rankings, neither is in danger of being passed after a win. There’s even a chance the loser will still make the field should Clemson and/or Alabama lose. As a one-loss division champion, the Hawkeyes would certainly have a case. The Spartans would have less of a shot, but it would be hard for the committee to justify taking Ohio State over them should it come to that, based on their head-to-head result.

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But Iowa and Michigan State would rather just win Saturday and not have to worry about those scenarios. The Hawkeyes would only add to the most surprising story of 2015 should they go to 13–0 and win the Big Ten for the first time since they were co-champions in 2004. The Spartans received much more hype before the season, but with some mediocre performances and injury issues, they’ve had plenty of doubters along the way. Whichever team wins Saturday, though, won’t have to worry about the naysayers anymore—it will have earned the right to play for the national title.

2. Both teams’ playoff hopes on the line in ACC title game

Led by Heisman hopeful Deshaun Watson and buoyed by a huge early-season win over Notre Dame, Clemson has been the wire-to-wire No. 1 team since the first playoff rankings were released. The Tigers’ path to the playoff became clear after they passed their other major test against Florida State, and now they just need to win Saturday to seal a bid.

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Standing in their way is North Carolina, which joins Iowa among the country’s biggest surprises this season. Written off after its ugly season-opening loss to South Carolina, UNC has since won 11 straight behind a powerful offense and a much improved defense, for which first-year defensive coordinator Gene Chizik deserves a lot of credit. With just the one loss, the Tar Heels would have a strong case for playoff inclusion if they can pull the upset on Saturday, but their No. 10 ranking (behind three two-loss teams), is not promising. Regardless, UNC will force its way into the discussion with a win—and No. 1 Clemson has a much tougher test on its hands than it appeared a couple months ago.

3. Alabama tries to lock up playoff bid in SEC Championship Game

No, the dynasty isn’t dead yet. In the weeks since their home loss to Ole Miss, the Crimson Tide have taken on the form with which we’ve grown accustomed in recent years: they feature a dominant defense with an imposing front seven and a Heisman contender at running back (Derrick Henry). Beat Florida on Saturday, and Bama will become the only program to qualify for the playoff in both years of its existence (unless Ohio State finds a way to sneak in after a Clemson loss).

The Gators have enjoyed a resurgence in Jim McElwain’s first season, but the offense has been punchless since QB Will Grierwas suspended. Florida has lost steam over the final month of the season as a result, and after its ugly performance against Florida State it’s nearly impossible to imagine the Treon Harris-led Gators knocking off Alabama. That scenario is intriguing, since it’s one of the two results that can bring chaos and open the door for Stanford, Ohio State, North Carolina or the Big Ten title game loser to make the playoff. But the much more likely outcome is Alabama finds itself playing for its fourth national title in the last seven years.

4. Stanford’s playoff hopes still alive with Pac-12 title game win

The Cardinal ensured they’d still have a playoff shot when Conrad Ukropina’s last-second field goal sailed through the uprights against Notre Dame last week in what amounted to an elimination game. Now at No. 7, Stanford would need to leap three spots, which can only happen if Clemson and/or Alabama lose. That the committee slotted the Cardinal just one place behind one-loss Ohio State indicates they’d likely pass the Buckeyes should they win Saturday. But beyond that, it’s unclear how the field would shake out, especially if Clemson loses. Who would get in among a one-loss Clemson, a one-loss, ACC champion North Carolina, a two-loss, Pac-12 champion Stanford and a potential one-loss Iowa? Stanford’s in solid shape, but it’s anyone’s guess what the committee would do.

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For the Cardinal to stay alive, of course, they have to beat USC. They already did so once in Week 3, but that was when Steve Sarkisian was still the opposing coach. The Trojans rebounded from their bad start and the ensuing Sarkisian saga to take the competitive Pac-12 South under Clay Helton, who was named the team’s permanent head coach for his efforts. If they can overcome their myriad injuries to stun Stanford, the committee would have one less team to worry about.

5. AAC championship game will determine New Year’s Six bid

Just as the Big Ten title game is a clear-cut playoff quarterfinal, the inaugural AAC championship game is a clear-cut play-in game for the Group of Five’s New Year’s Six bowl bid, which goes to the conference champion slotted highest in the playoff rankings. With Houston at No. 19 and Temple at No. 22 and no other potential Group of Five champion in the top 25, there’s no chance that whoever wins Saturday won’t get the automatic bid.

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The Cougars and Owls have enjoyed outstanding seasons. Temple was firmly in the national spotlight ahead of its Week 9 matchup with Notre Dame, and Houston was one of just five teams to start the season 10–0. Their success made their head coaches two of the most sought candidates for Power 5 jobs (Tom Herman has already agreed to stay with the Cougars, while Matt Rhule could take another job). Saturday’s matchup should be an outstanding one, with the explosive, Greg Ward-led Houston offense taking on linebacker Tyler Matakevich and the stout Temple defense. That the Cougars are hosting the game (by virtue of their better overall record) could give them the edge.